Question: How do people who have a lot of anger towards their parents develop gratitude towards them?
Ajahn Sumedho: This is not an uncommon problem, because I know that teaching metta on too sentimental a basis can actually increase anger. I remember a woman on one of our retreats who, whenever it came to spreading metta to her parents, would go into a rage. Then she felt very guilty about it, as she was not able to forgive and develop loving-kindness to her mother. Every time she thought about her mother, she only felt this rage. This was because she only used her intellect; she wanted to do this practice of metta, but emotionally felt anything but that.
It's important to see this conflict between the intellect and the emotional life. We know in our mind that we should be able to forgive our enemies and love our parents, but in the heart we feel, 'I can never forgive them for what they've done.' So then we either feel anger and resentment, or we go into rationalisations: 'Because my parents were so bad, so unloving, so unkind, they made me suffer so much that I can't forgive or forget,' or: 'There's something wrong with me, I'm a terrible person because I can't forgive. If I were a good person I would be able to forgive, therefore I must be a bad person.' These are the conflicts that we have between the intellect and the emotions. When we don't understand this conflict, we are confused; we know how we should feel but we don't actually feel that way.
With the intellect we can figure it out ideally; we can create marvellous images and perceptions in the mind. But the emotional nature is not rational. It's a feeling nature, it is not going to go along with what is reasonable, logical, sensible - so on the emotional level we have to understand how we actually feel. I've found it helped to have metta for my own feeling. So when we feel that our parents were unkind and unloving to us we can have metta towards the feeling we have in the heart; not being judgmental, but having patience with that feeling - to see that this is how it feels, and then to accept that feeling. Then it is possible to resolve that feeling. But when we get stuck in a battle between our logical perceptions and our emotional responses, it gets very confusing.
Once I began to accept my negativity rather than suppress it, I could resolve it. When we resolve something with mindfulness, then we can let it go and free ourself from the power of that particular thing - not through denial or rejection, but through understanding and accepting that particular negative feeling. The resolution of such a conflict leads us to contemplate what life is about.
My father died about six years ago. He was then 90 years old, and he had never shown love or positive feelings towards me. So from early childhood I had this feeling that he did not like me. I carried this feeling through most of my life; I never had any kind of love, any kind of warm relationship with my father. It was always a perfunctory: 'Hello son, good to see you.' And he seemed to feel threatened by me. I remember whenever I came home as a Buddhist monk he would say, 'Remember, this is my house, you've got to do as I say.' This was his greeting - and I was almost 50 years old at the time! I don't know what he thought I was going to do!
In the last decade of his life, he was quite miserable and became very resentful. He had terrible arthritis and was in constant pain, and he had Parkinson's disease and everything was going wrong. Eventually he had to be put in a nursing home. He was completely paralysed. He could move his eyes and talk, but the rest of his body was rigid, totally still. He hated this. He was resentful of what had happened to him because before he had been a strong, independent, virile man. He had been able to control and manage everything in his life. So he hated and resented having to depend on nurses to feed him and so on.
My first year here I remember discussing my parents with my sister. She pointed out to me that my father was a very considerate man. He was very considerate and thoughtful towards my mother. He was always eager to help her when she was tired or unwell - a very supportive husband. Because I came from a family where it was normal for a man to be like that, I had never recognised those qualities. My sister pointed out that it is not often that a husband is supportive or helpful to his wife. For my father's generation, women's rights and feminism were not the issue. 'I bring in the money, and you do the cooking and washing,' was the attitude then. I realise then that I had not only completely overlooked these good qualities, I had not even noticed them.
The last time I went to see him, I decided that I would try to get some kind of warmth going between us before he died. It was quite difficult to even think this, because I had gone through life feeling that he didn't like me. It is very hard to break through that kind of thing. Anyway, his body needed to be stimulated, so I said, 'Let me massage your leg.' And he said, 'No, no, you don't need to do that.' And I said, 'You'll get bedsores, because you really have to have your skin massaged.' And he still said, 'No, you don't have to do it.' Then I said, 'I would really like to do it.' And he said, 'You don't have to do it.' But I could tell that he was considering it. Then I said, 'I think it'll be a good thing and I'd really like to do it,' and he said, 'So you'd really like to do it?' and I said, 'Yes.'
I started massaging his feet, his legs, his neck and shoulders, his hands and his face, and he really enjoyed the physical contact. It was the first time he had been touched like that. I think elderly people really like being touched, because physical contact is quite meaningful, it's an expression of feeling. And I began to realise that my father really loved me, but didn't know how to say it because of his upbringing. He'd been brought up in an Edwardian time in a very formal environment. His had been a 'don't touch, don't get emotional' sort of a family. They had no great emotional explosions, feelings were always controlled. Now I realised that my father was quite a loving sort of man, but he could not express his feelings because of his background. And I had this great sense of relief. I couldn't understand him when I was young, because I did not understand his upbringing and what he had been through. It was only when I grew older that I began to understand the consequences of having such an upbringing; once you are conditioned in that way, it is difficult to break out of it. I could see when I looked back that behind the behaviour of my father there was love, but it always came out in a commanding or demanding way, because that is the only way he knew how to talk. Like the way he said, 'Remember, this is my house, and you have to do what I say.' If I was going to be offended by that, I would have had a miserable time. But I decided not to pay any attention to that statement and not make a problem of it. I saw him as an old man losing his control, and maybe he saw me as a threat. He probably thought, 'He's going to think I am a hopeless old man, but I'm going to show him.'
Those who have taken care of paraplegics or quadriplegics know that sometimes they get very cantankerous. We can think we are doing them a favour, but they can be quite demanding because when people are helpless like that they become very sensitive to the patronising way of healthy people towards the sick: 'Let me help you - you're an invalid.' This type of thing is also seen when young people care for the elderly.
Eight years ago, we had a man who wanted to come and die in the monastery. He was 80 years old, an Englishman who had been a Buddhist since 1937. He was a very nice man, and he had terminal cancer. So he stayed here at Amaravati and people from a Buddhist group in Harlow that he had founded and inspired would come to look after him; sometimes when they couldn't come the monks would look after him. I had noticed that some of the monks were getting patronising about him. But this man would not take any of it: 'I might be dying and all, but I'm not stupid,' he'd say, and he made it very clear that he was not going to put up with such behaviour. So we have to be aware when we look after the elderly or the sick, we have to watch our reactions.
When we look at life from a historical point of view we see that it has always been difficult for people. When you visit a graveyard and read the gravestones here in England, you can find many of them are for young women - 25 years old or so - who died in childbirth; or for babies. That was very common in England just 100 years ago. Women could not necessarily expect to survive childbirth. Now, when someone dies in childbirth we are surprised and upset by it. We think life should not be like this, life should be fair. Our expectations are very high, and we can be very critical because we think that life should only get better and better. Yet even if we have everything, we can still live a joyless life. So it's how we relate to life, and how we develop our minds that counts - it's nothing to do with wealth and status, or even good health.
Life is a difficult experience, and it is an on-going one. You keep learning until you die. Life is difficult but you keep thinking it should not be so, that it should be easy. Now, I think that life should be difficult, because that's the way we learn.